New book examines how the Bible came to be — a loser’s tale

(RNS) — Studying the Bible from a historic and critical lens is a longstanding project dating back to the 18th century. As new archaeological evidence comes to light, that project of better understanding the ancient world and its most influential text keeps evolving.

Jacob L. Wright, a professor of Hebrew Bible at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, has now written a book that takes all the latest findings to help illustrate how the Hebrew Bible came together — and critically, why.

In “Why the Bible Began,” he concludes that successive expulsions and exiles — first the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, the Persians, and later the Greeks and Romans — forced the ancient scribes to forge from their defeats a new identity as a people.

Beginning around the destruction of the first Jerusalem temple in 586 B.C., elite scribes took some older writings from two traditions he identifies as the “Palace History” of Kings Saul, David and Solomon, and the “People’s History” of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) and later Moses — a tradition completely indifferent to the monarchy — and stitched them together.

In doing so, they reunited the memories of the divided kingdoms of Judah to the south and Israel to the north into a single people with a shared history.

This project of composing, recomposing, redacting and merging the biblical corpus gave a previously divided and defeated peoples a vision of a reimagined past and a possible shared future.

RNS spoke to Wright about his book and how he pieced together his thesis. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Talk a little bit about the sources you used.

This is a great question, because it goes to the heart of my project. There are two very different groups of sources. First, we have the biblical texts. We don’t have the originals, so we have to build on scholarship and a lot of comparative evidence to get at how it may have emerged. It’s a hypothetical kind of reconstruction.

The second body of evidence, in stark contrast, were discovered through modern archaeological excavations and deciphered by people who study languages. These discoveries have led to massive breakthroughs in our understanding of the ancient world.

I noticed these inscriptions and engraved monuments are important parts of the story you tell.

Yes, because what’s crucial for me is that we discovered these royal monuments buried deep in the ground. And the reason why, I explain, is because when the palace and dynasty was conquered and could no longer exert political influence, no one really cared about preserving its propaganda.

The biblical sources are of a very different quality, covering so many things the other texts do not. Above all, they treat the daily lives of average folk — men and women and their children.

The epic begins in Genesis, with the story of how a family emerges and then migrates down to Egypt at a time of turmoil. The next book, Exodus, tells how they ended up becoming slaves there, how various women (both Egyptian and Hebrew) work together in the face of state-sponsored genocide and how these slaves are eventually liberated from bondage and become a new nation.

So, the archaeological findings help reconstruct the true history?

Throughout the first two parts of the book, I show that on the basis of our archaeological finds, the biblical story has to be appreciated as story, not as history — even if that story contains many historical elements.

If we look at the biblical depiction of Israel’s emergence in Canaan, it departs in fundamental ways from what we now know about the facts on the ground. I drive home for the reader how far history and story diverge, and how much that divergence helps us appreciate the aims of the scribes who collected the broken shards of their diverse pasts and constructed from them a new narrative, one that empowered a defeated community to confront their collective trauma and pave a way to a new future of what I call “peoplehood.”

You start with a very challenging notion that the Bible did not originate as Scripture. Could you explain that.

Yes, we often assume texts like the Torah were central to ancient Israel. And what I try to show is that the biblical portraits are aspirational rather than straightforward descriptions. Historically, writings were not central to a larger “reading public” as envisioned in the Bible.

The earliest biblical texts were, first and foremost, not religious writings, but a project of bringing together rival communities and affirming (contra-factually) that they all were originally one family that eventually became a nation at the moment of their liberation from slavery.

The Hebrew Bible emerged in the aftermath of defeat. Explain how it changed the biblical narrative?

As generations of nameless scribes wove together pieces of their diverse pasts, they went to great lengths to remove the monarchy from the picture. Thus, David appears very late in the story. Many things happened before, and they happened without a native king to lead the way.

The reason why they created this “prehistory of peoplehood” is because they were working in very dark days, after imperial armies had conquered their kingdom and destroyed their land. Their narrative gave the defeated hope and inspired them to imagine a form of community that can survive the defeat of that kingdom.

How did Yahweh emerge?

The name for the God of the Bible is Yahweh, and what’s really important to know is that at the beginning there were multiple Yahwehs. The biblical project is about proclaiming that all these Yahwehs are actually one and the same. This proclamation was a part of a grand effort to bring the nation together around one transcendent being. The objective was to remove the monarchy and palace from the picture, and to give a defeated and divided nation a point of unity that transcends any political institution.

As they unpacked this foundational notion, the scribes told their nation’s history as the story of a long and tumultuous relationship between Yahweh and his people. And in doing so, these scribes created something truly distinctive in the ancient world. An account of the dramatic relationship between a deity and a deity’s people is unprecedented, and it has had a powerful impact on religious history.

So the Bible was created as a political project to create a people, right?

To create a new form of community, what I call peoplehood. It’s the same thing as a nation. Nation is not just a country or a state, even though it’s often understood as that. This new idea is that we can be a people, even without a king holding us all together. And then the question is: What does it mean to be a people? Is it about a covenant? Is it about the obligations we make with a transcendent deity to care for the common good? It’s a new form of political community. It’s not a nationalistic liberation movement, but fundamentally an attempt to come to terms with the loss of statehood — a Plan B. And that’s gonna be something no army can conquer. Armies will be able to destroy our temples, our palaces, our borders, our armies. The prophets imagine this community as a city on a hill that turns swords into plowshares. It’s about learning to survive, and even thrive, in conditions of imperial occupation and colonization. As the city of Jerusalem is besieged, Jeremiah excoriates those who insisted on resistance and urges everyone to “bend our necks to the yoke of the Babylonian empire so that we may live!.” 

At the end of the book you distinguish that plan from the kind of Christian nationalism we now see in the U.S. Explain how it’s different.

The biblical vision of what it means to be a people or a nation is very different from the perversions of the concept by political movements. The biblical vision of nationhood is like Jacob, not like Esau. We are going to navigate our way in the world by refocusing our attention not on martyrdom, not on ‘give me liberty or give me death.’ The fundamental concept is survival in a pragmatic attempt to live in a world ruled by others and to refocus attention on solidarity with members of the people. That’s very different from the way that we do our narratives in a nationalistic way where one story is privileged and the others are disparaged.

I wonder how the message of the Bible that you write about can relate to what’s happening now in Israel?

The biblical model of peoplehood is about the diaspora. It’s not about the King Davids and the great rulers who managed to build a strong state and establish national sovereignty. Yes, that episode is depicted, but it is only one chapter in a much longer story. In the Bible, statehood and political power are not inherently against the divine will. But the project is much less about how to govern a state properly and much more about how to reorient ourselves collectively when that state has been conquered. Kingdoms and states can come and go, but this new form of political community will endure.

The question to me is what will come out of this (war)? This has already become a time of rethinking and reevaluating. I hope it will also be a time of renewed creativity with many coming together across divisions (like the biblical scribes did in their dark days) to discern a new day on the horizon and envision new and enduring forms of political community.